I feel like I have to start this post with a confession: Before this weekend, I’d never been to Limmud. Ever. There must be others like me, so if you have no idea what I’m talking about, see here.
I’d first heard of this thing when i was a grad student in London in 2003 and my English friends were talking about how instead of going to the beach over Christmas, or to the Phish show at MSG, they shacked up in dormitories at a university in Warwick and spent the week studying Judaism. I found this baffling. Why on earth would anyone want to do that?
Limmud now exists in more than 30 countries around the world and, as several of my colleagues have shown (see here and here), after three decades is a full blown phenomenon. But despite a half-decade covering the Jewish world, I’ve never managed to get myself to one of these gatherings. Until now.
Based on my experience, Limmud — or Limoud, as they call it in France — is a place of abundant wine (but only during meals, and beyond that little alcohol), exceptional food (unless you’re a vegetarian, in which case, vous n’avez pas de chance), early bed times, and a surprising number of sessions dealing with the intersection of Judaism and two subjects: pschoanalysis and pop music.
OK, so that might not be typical. But in one respect, the young French Limoudniks I spoke to — and let’s call a croissant a croissant here, shall we? most French Limoudniks are young — are indistinguishable from their counterparts around the world: they’ve got a serious bone to pick with the community leadership. In France, it’s about their lack of support for new projects, their disinterest in strong ties with the wider Jewish world, the lack of innovative youth programming, their refusal to offer free packs of Galouoises in exchange for donations. (OK, I made that last one up, but still.)
This is hardly a French phenomenon. Even in New York, with its abundance of creative Jewish expression, the establishment is often deemed insufficiently supportive of new initiatives. Even where there’s a lot, it seems there isn’t enough.
But there is something unique about the French experience. France is the largest Diaspora community in the world after the United States, yet more Limmud events have been organized by the 40,000 Jews of the Netherlands. According to the recent Jumpstart survey, Hungary, with one-tenth the population of Jews, has more Jewish startup organizations. Between 2000-10, only about 5,000 Birthright participants have been French — compared to Canada (22,720), Argentina (9.865), Russia (13,512), and Ukraine (7.252), all of which have smaller Jewish populations.
"In France, there is the already existing Jewish community and institutions that were great innovations when they were founded, [but] more and more we realize that what they’re doing is very much often some management of the already existing activities, and not about the vision, and about a new future, and about helping innovations," said Ruth Ouazana, the honorary president of Limoud France, at a session about UK-French collaboration. "It’s very difficult to move."
This has led to some dire predictions, which I don’t quite buy. Read my story last year from Vienna, or from Copenhagen. Both countries have Jewish populations far smaller than France and have been warning of their imminent disappearance for a century. So far the worst hasn’t come to pass. It’s impossible to imagine a half-million French Jews assimilating into oblivion.
But there’s clearly something locking French Jewry into old patterns that other communities are managing to break out of. I’ll be writing more about this as the week goes on. But this is an issue of degree not kind, quantity not quality. Every community I’ve visited is experiencing this sort of tension, between an establishment more focused on social welfare, Israel, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and a younger generation more digitally plugged-in, less deferential to intercommunal barriers (real and percieved), less reflexively supportive of Israel, more concerned with meaning over obligation. In a word, more open, like the world they’ve created.
‘Generation Limmud’ was the term I heard a few times this weekend to describe these folks. I hesitate to use it because it implies a breadth that simply isn’t there. Plenty of Jews are checked out entirely and wouldn’t know a Limmud conference if it bit them on the nose. Many others see their Judaism primarily through the lens of private religious devotion and don’t much care what the machers are up to.
But neither are these concerns easily dismissed. The checked-out aren’t going to assume leadership positions any time soon. And as the closing session at the recent OU convention demonstrates, it takes some doing to get Orthodox kids involved in broad-based community organizations. For better or worse, Generation Limmud is either going to inherit the establishment, or create its own.